Rocky Rococo and the Riddle of ‘So Bad It’s Good’

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Driving away from Rocky Rococo one day, my roommate and I, both undergraduate bachelors, compared it to an esteemed Madison pizza joint. That place, he said, was like one’s wife, and Rocky’s played the mistress: disreputable, shame worthy, and a source of endless low-down pleasure. I countered that the classier pizza place was the buttoned-up dame you’d meet in a hotel bar during a work conference, and that Rocky’s was the wife: foundational, primally satisfying, a companion for the soul on both good days and bad.

We left it an impasse. I would later discover that marriage itself is the pizza — homemade, the recipe refined over iterations, all the heartier for being cooperatively made — but as my Madison friends likewise grew, matured, and frequently moved away, many find they haven’t escaped Rocky’s thrall. It’s the must-nosh pit stop when they’re back in town, the eyes alight in its so-bad-it’s-goodosity.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

One such pilgrim is Heavy Table’s own James Norton, who joined me across the wires one afternoon at Rocky Rococo’s Brooklyn Park location, while I lunched at one of their Madison flagships. Our post-hoc email conversation follows, as we test my hypothesis that its signature dish, which my fellow theorizer of mistresses dubbed “pizza cake,” is the very best bad pizza on the planet.

JAMES NORTON: It was sort of amazing to drive up to Brooklyn Park and arrive at an honest-to-goodness Rocky Rococo’s. The place is so fused in my mind with high school-era Madison, WI that it’s bizarre to find it floating around present-day greater Minneapolis metro area.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

But there it was. It had the same corny “family photographs” of fictional founder Rocky Rococo on the wall, the same super-sized slices of the day hanging out on the shelf behind the register, made who-knows-how-long ago.

As a food writer, I talk to people a lot about the difference between food you like and food that’s good. The knee-jerk assumption that a lot of people make is that if you like eating a food, it’s good. That’s wrong.

The example I typically give is Taco Bell. I like eating a Seven Layer Burrito and two soft tacos at Taco Bell. But it’s not good food, and I don’t defend it as such. If you’re going to claim that something’s objectively good, you should be able to provide context and cite evidence, but bad personal taste stands alone.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Rocky Rococo, as you mention in your introduction, is just objectively bad pizza. It’s soft and doughy. The sauce is too sweet. The cheese — oh, man, the cheese — is piled on thick and gooey. The crust lacks substance. ‘Pizza cake’ is such a good way to sum it up — the whole package is soft and sweet, doughy like the midsection of a typical modern American.

And yet, it’s got that guilty pleasure thing going on for me. My wife hates it (I had to cash in pre-existing good behavior points in order to convince her to shoot this assignment), but for me, it’s sort of like Proust’s madeleine… one bite, and I’m chilling on State Street in 1993, chowing down on slices with my friends, having some kind of overly earnest and ultimately misinformed conversation about girls.

SEAN WEITNER: My sympathies are certainly aligned with your assessment of why Rocky’s demands repeat business from those who associate that pizza with their youths, but I think there’s something to be said for the place even among those who don’t share our remembrance of Rocky’s past. It’s not just a nostalgia trip, and I can’t hold it up as an otherwise indefensible exemplar of bad personal taste.

Prepared pizza, particularly if you’re looking for family joints rather than members of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (which I believe is Italian for “Knights of Malta”), is a minefield of bad food, and I think Rocky’s outcompetes almost all of these options on gustatory grounds. If you’re a reader whose diet includes no space for Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Papa Murphy’s, Uno’s, Sbarro, Carbone’s, Godfather’s, Little Caesar’s, Fazoli’s, frozen pizza, or cheap campus-area pies, then congratulations. But to the extent that bad pizza is a part of your diet, I think there’s a case to be made for including Rocky’s in that rotation, and in the pole position to boot.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Like regional barbecue, lots of areas claim some particular genius for pizza, but Wisconsin gets to make a particularly convincing case: We’ve got the cheese. As you note, Rocky’s doesn’t skimp on it; I don’t think any of the joints mentioned in the previous paragraph outdo Rocky’s when it comes to cheesy savor.

And it does well by its toppings; if I had to evaluate pizzas based on any single topping, I’d choose sausage, and Rocky’s sausage is heavenly. On most bad pizza, the sausage is the size of rabbit droppings, and the baking process leaves it totally desiccated and homogeneously dull. Rocky’s sausage comes in moist chunks bigger than marbles — sometimes almost as big as shooters — and it’s got more than one flavor note. That said, Rocky’s standard pepperoni and hamburger toppings don’t distinguish themselves as much, their bacon is oddly sweet, and the vegetables, while often included in adequate portions, are decent but don’t wow you with their freshness. Rocky’s marinara gravy is unexceptional — it’s too sweet, but it’s always too sweet in bad pizza — though the comforting flavor of traditional pizza herbs still comes through.

The soft underbelly of Rocky’s pizza is its soft underbelly, the deep-dish crust sodden with grease. Now, I’ve yet to try Rocky’s thin-crust pizza, which is offered once a week at its Madison locations, to see how Rocky’s flavor synergies work outside of the “pizza cake” paradigm. Their traditional crust is delicious in, fine, a totally disreputable way, but does any other bad pizza have a delicious crust in any way? Rocky’s crust is neither the sweetest, nor the greasiest, nor the soggiest bad-pizza crust out there, whereas most other bad pizzas have crusts that are competing neck-and-neck for most blandly forgettable.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

It should be noted that, while they sell whole pies, Rocky’s main business seems to me to be selling slices at lunch, so you’re rarely eating made-to-order pizza. They always offer sausage / mushroom, pepperoni, sausage / pepperoni, and the “Garden of Eatin'” veggie pizza, and then they have one or two rotating slots, including seasonal specialty pizzas with uncommon ingredients. The two best slices in regular rotation are the Perfect (sausage, mushroom, onions, peppers) and the Rococo Chicago (sausage, four cheeses, diced tomatoes, and no sauce). These are the pizzas that I’d put up against any other bad pizza on the market… but I dunno, Jim. Am I trying to hard too extol the virtues of what is, in concept and execution, no different from a Seven Layer Burrito?

NORTON: I think you’re making a damned strong case, but as previously indicated, I’m pretty far from objective here.

You make a good point about the “best of the bad” claim, in that most bad pizza just makes me depressed. There’s something about cardboard crust, locked-up low-grade cheese, and / or dried out miserable sausage that makes what should be a sinful junky feast into merely a sad wallow through the Valley of Carbs.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Rocky’s, by contrast, at least does what it does festively. I look forward to an annual (or semi-annual?) Pepperoni Super Slice at Rocky’s — it’s nothing like my standbys like Black Sheep Pizza, Fat Lorenzo’s, Roman Market, but that’s precisely the point.

Part of the Rocky’s story for me has always been the branding and marketing, too. What is (maybe mercifully) not understood these days is that “Rocky Rococo” was a real guy in Madison — the head of the chain’s accounting department used to put on a white suit and prosthetic nose, if memory serves, and appear just about anywhere you might expect to see an actual VIP: festivals, bridge openings, whatever. “Hey!” you’d think, “it’s Rocky Rococo!” He also did copious commercials in a not-particularly-sensitive mix of faux Italian and New Jersey goombah, touting whatever amazing new topping combination was that month’s corporate priority.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

In retrospect, I guess the whole Rocky’s schtick was sort of chintzy and arguably offensive — the natty white suit always conveyed the romance of Mafia gangsterism, and the older I get, the less amused I am by that kind of  marketing. (Read the heartbreaking Excellent Cadavers if you want to get a true feel for the damage done by the Sicialian Mafia, or Gomorrah to learn about the Neapolitan Camorra organization … and then try enjoying commercialized pop culture riffs on Italian and Italian-American organized crime.)

All that said, as a kid, Rocky was just part of the pantheon of Fun Characters we got to enjoy, all the better for the fact he was a local. What’s your take on the man behind the pizza cake?

WEITNER: Well, we differ on this in that I only became aware of Rocky’s in college when I moved to Madison; my associations with the character aren’t quite as Pufnstuffian, although, sure, the cheerful gambino is a fraught character to play with, a little more ethnically dicey than, say, the Mario Brothers.

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

But that does bring up another facet of the Rocky’s experience that’s not available to Minneapolitans, and that’s as a Chuck E. Cheese competitor, with two locations offering skee-ball and arcade amusements. I’m sure you haven’t had Chuck cuisine in years, if ever, but it’s basically as bad as can be. You’d think there’s plenty of room in that market for someone to come in and serve better food, but the worst “meal” I’ve had in years was at It’z, a desert-state Chuck knockoff I took my kids to while we were waiting for their cousin to be born. Their buffet was like if a Sysco truck had an abortion. You call Rocky’s festive, and that’s exactly right, and it’s also an example of making bad-for-you treats out of actual food, the dark side of real ingredients. There’s ignoble merit to that, and my kids love it when we go there and eat pizza and watch Yogi Bear and The Snorks projected onto giant screens. It’s wholesome junk.

NORTON: And as wholesome junk, something best relegated to the “rare treat” and / or “coping with really bad news” categories of dining. From the Gopher State to the Badger State, thanks from me to you for talking — at length — about Rocky’s.

WEITNER: Yes, Rocky’s should be a staple of no diet, but on those occasions when bad pizza is the order of the day, the heretofore unrococo’d ought to set it in their sights, and it’s good to know that the Minneapolis location keeps the faith. Jim, next time you’re back to our emerald shores, I’d love to take you out for a slice… particularly at Cafe Porta Alba, where they say the oven is so hot the pizzas cook in less than a minute. Meanwhile, we’re hosting some former Madisonians tonight, and when they heard what I was writing up for you, guess where they wanted to go to dinner?

Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Rocky Rococo
Pizza parlor in Brooklyn Park, MN
7540 Brooklyn Blvd
Brooklyn Park, MN 55443
763.560.5451
HOURS:
Sun 11:30am-9pm
Mon-Thu 11am-9pm
Fri-Sat 11am-9:30pm
BAR: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $4-12

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22 Comments

  1. Midwesterner 12/10/2010 Reply

    Thanks for this – I didn’t know there was still one in the Twin Cities area. Cross-cities road trip planned next week, after blizzard snow gets plowed & sanded, for a slice of my favorite – Garden of Eatin.

  2. kassie 12/10/2010 Reply

    Having went to high school just blocks from this Rocky Rococo, I spent a lot of time there as a kid. It was often a place to eat before a game or when the coach was paying. We had open lunch and could run there and get a slice and get back to school before the next class. But if someone would have asked me yesterday what the pizza was like, I’d have no good answer. For me, it was completely forgettable, unlike Scoreboard Pizza, which I will remember forever from that same time in my life.

  3. matt 'old badger' 12/10/2010 Reply

    thanks for the trip back to State street.

  4. There used to be a Rocky Rococo near Southtown in Bloomington as well as in Dinkytown. I had no idea they were still around.

  5. James, do you remember Gumby’s Pizza from Madison? Man, that pizza tasted SO GOOD at midnight on a saturday evening. I’m sure it was all but inedible at any other time, but I wouldn’t know. ;-)

  6. I found it funny that Heavy Table would give such a deep dive to such trashy food. I usually have to make a bee line to the bathroom after a trip to Rocky’s. However, they are the pizza of my childhood in Madison. I also find that their pizza is truly unique. I too, make a trip to Rocky’s once or twice a year at the displeasure of my wife. I just love it too much.

  7. Great article. I think I had a Super Slice of pepperoni for lunch pretty much every Friday from when I got my drivers license until I graduated from high school. I don’t think we ever thought of it as bad, and I don’t think there was really much in Madison in the 90’s that would have qualified as “good” by today’s standards.

  8. David Foureyes 12/10/2010 Reply

    Rocky’s and Godfathers bring back weird memories for me.

    Gumby’s was the best…the drivers would pickup beer for you if you asked. Pokey sticks and Schlitz!

  9. Sara B. 12/10/2010 Reply

    This is the most I’ve thought about Rocky’s (and perhaps the most three-syllable words devoted to Rocky’s — paradigm, seriously?) since my brothers threatened to pour hot pepper flakes on my Rocky’s slices in elementary school. I share your nostalgia for the guy with the fake nose, Jim, but I’m afraid these days I’d rather spend my precious calories on a better, more fully cooked, pie.

  10. this did bring back memories, pizza cake indeed.

  11. I loved this. I spent my high school days at the Rocky’s on 4th St. in La Crosse, WI before checking out all-ages punk shows at the Warehouse. Rocky himself used to ride in a convertible in the yearly Oktoberfest parade – gotta love midwestern “celebrities”! I haven’t eaten at a Rocky’s in years but it’s comforting to see that it is as terrifyingly greasy as I remember.

  12. jforbess 12/11/2010 Reply

    Let’s not forget MasterPizza Theatre, a Madison version of MST3K, with Rocky and a sidekick as the smartasses in the theatre. It entered my awareness before MST3K, but I can’t speak to whether it was a rip-off or not. That’s my fond memory.

    And I love the pizza, though I like it more for the sauce and crust and less for the cheese. But the fact that they get the cheese nicely browned does add a lot.

  13. Nice job of taking into account the full context e.g. the nostalgic element, price, mind set.

    Not something you guys typically do.

    Eating is a multi-faceted experience…it’s not only about the food.

    Good work!

  14. I’ve heard the term ‘pizza cake’ used to refer to Rocky Rococo’s before! Now that it’s been uttered twice by random people it is word.

  15. Mike, yep, I recall Gumby’s, although mostly (as you implied) as a Saturday-night-drunk kind of thing. I also remember Papa John’s debuting back when I was in college… that was a real game changer. We used to do a deal with them when I was at the school paper — we’d run a small weekly ad for them, they’d give us 10 free pizzas a week, whenever we called for them. Good times!

  16. The free Papa John’s was great, but nothing beats a large Pokey Stix with ranch dressing when you’re drunk. Pure heaven.

  17. MJ Gilbert 12/13/2010 Reply

    So much better Madison food (even better “bad” food) to reminisce about! The thing about Rocky’s that lost me (and there was no lack of mediocre pizza to be had in Madison in the 70’s and 80’s- remember Garagano’s?) was not its mushy crust, sweet sauce or icky toppings. It was the 70’s I was in college, I had the munchies!. It was the fact that it needed salt. Having to put salt on a pizza to make it taste like something is just not OK. It is beyond the pale.

    Anybody remember the doughnut factory? The ORIGINAL one, only open in the middle of the night, where you walked around the factory and put doughnuts from the trays right into your bag?

  18. Rennie 12/14/2010 Reply

    “Their buffet was like if a Sysco truck had an abortion.”?

    Please, no more like this.

  19. I lived in Madison from 2000-2005, but grew up eating Rocky Rococo in various locales between Minneapolis, The Dells, etc. and when I went to UW I acquired a habit of occasionally biking across town to get my Rocky fix once every few weeks. It’s definitely part nostalgia, but not for the aesthetic — the Regent Street location didn’t even have the trademark portraits, did it? — but really just for the pizza itself. Fast-food deep-dish. Is there anyone else that makes it? Domino’s doesn’t quite count, it’s circular. The pizza just goes down so easily, and with a side order of breadsticks (part of the combo) it is heavenly. I would always mix my soda to include part Mello Yello, part pink lemonade. Anyway, as a kid, I had so many memorable experiences eating Rocky Rococo. Once I almost choked on a piece of cheese in the Wisconsin Dells location, and some police officers in the next booth came over to help. There’s one memorable experience. I also dragged my super health-conscious girlfriend there once in 2009. Well, that’s about it. I love Rocky Rococo and I hope I get to eat it a million more times before the remaining ones go out of business.

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